Memory and pain

Doris Salcedo, A Flor de Piel, 2011-12

Probably best known in London for Shibboleth – the crack in the floor of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern – Doris Salcedo is an artist with an extraordinary ability to take the most ordinary objects and materials and turn them into moving and often highly political works. Her current exhibition at White Cube, Mason’s yard contains just two works. Nonetheless it gave me a lot to think about and, time permitting, I’d like to go back.

In the upstairs space, A Flor de Piel looks more like flayed skin than rose petals. The piece is a large-scale blanket of what must amount to many, many thousands of petals and stitches which the press release describes – much better than I can – as ‘a shroud composed of sutured rose petals’. That word sutured seems apt. There is a sense of the bodily in its skin-like appearance and also a feeling of a surgical mending rather than a more domestic sewing together (though of course the two essentially amount to the same act).

 A Flor de Piel (detail)

A blanket of rose petals sounds beautiful and gentle. Though this is undeniably beautiful, it’s a brutal beauty. The petals are stitched together but this is an unhealable wound. The feeling is more of torture than romance. My Spanish being all but non-existent, I’m reliant on the internet to translate the title; suggestions seem to be that it’s roughly equivalent to wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve, or with a naked soul.

This is also work that is liable to change over time – which if course makes me regret not visiting it sooner – but though there is a delicacy to the petals, there is also an appearance of resilience. The folds in the piece make it resemble a cloth thrown quickly across the space. The edge is cut, as though from a larger cloth, but the cut isn’t always neat giving a sense of hurry and abruptness.

Plegaria Muda, 2008-10

Plegaria Muda, which fills the lower gallery, is a disconcerting sight. The installation is an arrangement of tables stacked one on top another. Sandwiched between the tabletops of the pairs of tables is a layer of earth. Getting closer, it’s apparent that there is grass growing up from the upturned tables, as though it’s somehow worked its way though the tabletop from the earth below. The tables are long but narrow (they could almost be benches but for their height): the proportions resembling coffins.

Here the Press Release helps me out, offering mute prayer as a transition of the tile. This is an installation started as a response to the violent lives of young people in the ghettoes of Los Angeles but fully took shape after the discovery of the bodies of 1,500 young men – tricked into leaving their homes with promises of work before being murdered – in Salcedo’s home country, Columbia.

Plegaria Muda (detail)

It’s hard to know exactly what makes Plegaria Muda work as well as it does, but for me there was something really moving about weaving my way through the installation. There are subtle differences in colour between the tables – the sandwich of earth means the height of each pair varies and the spacing has a randomness – rupturing the initial impression of uniformity. The tables act as monuments. In their differences lies acknowledgment of each victim’s individuality but their uniformity acts as a reminder of the violent ends of so many young lives and particularly of the unthinkable scale of the incident in Columbia.

With both these works, there is an immediate – and powerful – response that comes from the work alone: from Salcedo’s translation of the familiar into thought-proking and visually arresting installations. But there is a second response, triggered by reading into the work a little more. It’s the coming together of these two elements that mean that this is work that will stay with me a long time.

Doris Salcedo is at White Cube, Mason’s Yard, London until 30 June 2012

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